For the 57th birthday of the unparalleled drum master Lewis Nash, I’m posting the text of a DownBeat article that it was my honor to write about him in 2006, and a pair of WKCR interviews from that year and from 2005.
Lewis Nash (Downbeat Article):
Midway through a late Friday set at a half-full Village Vanguard during the dog days of July, Lewis Nash stated a medium-slow groove on the brushes as 83-year-old trumpeter Joe Wilder improvised six lovely choruses on Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair.” It followed a series of songbook tunes and blues, and Nash could easily have settled for keeping time. But he was not, as the saying goes, merely “digging coal.” Instead, on each cycle through the form, Nash executed a different pattern and timbre on the snare drum, imperturbably articulating the beat with crisp precision. The back-of-the-bar patrons might not have noticed the subtlety and ingenuity of Nash’s design, but Wilder did, and he tossed his drummer a nod and a broad smile as he lowered his horn.
It was not an anomalous moment. As Andrew Cyrille noted several years ago in a 5-star Blindfold Test evaluation, Nash, now 47, has “dotted all the i’s while coming up with some great inventions in the traditional style of jazz.” After remarking that “all the great brush players like Kenny Clarke, Ed Thigpen and Philly Joe Jones would have to give kudos to that playing,” Cyrille added, “Lewis is working very hard on the drums to make sure that we all remember whence we came and also what’s happening on the contemporary scene.”
If the vocabulary of the aforementioned masters and a timeline’s worth of hardcore swingers stretching from Max Roach to Edward Blackwell is encoded in Nash’s rhythmic DNA, so are ideas drawn from drumset abstractionists like Cyrille and Jerome Cooper, dance-infused grooves from the funk and R&B that Nash played in his pre-jazz years, and a bracing array of Afro-Caribbean meters. He weaves them together smoothly, conveying tried-and-true swing and Latin rhythms with idiomatic authority. Then he tweaks them, working with a full complement of pitches and intervals across the drumset to animate his beats, displacing figures normally articulated on one component and playing them on another, positioning his phrases to suit the overall architecture of each piece.
Nash titled his 1989 debut album Rhythm Is My Business [Alfa/Evidence], and continues to use the motto. The self-description is apt. He was one of New York’s busiest drummers in the ‘80s, building his reputation on prestigious gigs with Betty Carter, Ron Carter, Sonny Rollins, Branford Marsalis, Don Pullen, and George Adams, and cementing it during a ten-year run with the Tommy Flanagan Trio. As the ‘90s progressed, Nash became an A-list freelancer, building a 300-plus album resume that includes Grammy-winners by McCoy Tyner (Illuminations), Nancy Wilson (R.S.V.P.), and Joe Henderson (Big Band); Gerald Wilson’s 2003 Grammy nominated New York, New Sound; important recordings by both Carters, Joe Lovano, Jim Hall, Horace Silver, Russell Malone and Regina Carter; and a slew of equilaterally oriented trios with Flanagan and such lustrous keyboard talents as Roland Hanna, Don Friedman, Kenny Drew, Jr., and Cyrus Chestnut.
“I am thrust into different situations day in and day out with people who may have completely different musical objectives and viewpoints,” Nash said last December from his Hudson Valley home. “I try to bring the same seriousness to each situation. If there’s written music, and time allows, I put the chart under a microscope. If you don’t assimilate the basic character of the piece, you can’t use your interpretative skills to be creative—you’ll still be hung up on how to get from this place to the coda.”
At the time, Nash was decompressing from a week in Osaka with a quartet of Japanese mainstreamers. That occurred not long after a one-nighter in Noumea, New Caledonia, with a pair of Hammond B3 organists, two weeks after he brought his own quartet to Taichung, Taiwan, for a four-night run. He was preparing for a week-long New Year’s engagement in Orvieto, Italy, to be followed by a three-day jaunt to Uruguay with pianist-composer Cedar Walton, an increasingly frequent employer.
“When you are rooted, you don’t have to be afraid to try new things,” Nash said. “You’re manipulating time, beat, phrase, and timbre within a continuity of groove and feeling, so when the timbres change, people may not know exactly what you’re doing, but they know something feels and sounds different than in the previous chorus. I try for subtle transitions. There has to be a certain sense of freedom, of not the commonplace. Sometimes a little craziness is necessary to break through.”
In a recent conversation, saxophonist Steve Wilson, Nash’s partner on a dozen or so speculative improv duo concerts since 2003, observed that Nash’s attitude that a form is less a ball-and-chain than an opportunity to stretch boundaries makes his tonal personality a first cousin to that of Billy Higgins, who suited the needs of such antipodal stylists as Walton and Ornette Coleman with equal effectiveness while always sounding like himself.
“Higgins was always listening, and that’s how it is with Lewis,” Wilson said. “He’s deeply aware of everything happening on the bandstand, and he addresses the entire legacy of jazz and the drums—all the way back to all the way forward. Everything he does is out of the logic of where the line is going.”
Since 2000, no leader has collaborated more frequently with Nash than Lovano, both on his bop-to-free nonet and his more recent freedom-within-structure quartet with Hank Jones. “Lewis’ rhythmic attack is precise, but his phrases are lyrical, not just patterns that you play over,” Lovano said. “If I say something in a melodic phrase, he will answer and say something back at whatever tempo. His approach is refined, but his playing makes you want to jump out of your seat; it’s a force of nature, but that force changes on every piece.”
Tommy Campbell, like Nash a Sonny Rollins alumnus, remarks on his encyclopedic command of the lexicon. “Lewis makes the most intellectual and technical things sound so natural and effortless that you forget about what it takes to play it,” said Campbell. “He uses so many different degrees of character on one groove or style. For example, he must have 20 ways to play a shuffle. He does all the little things, too. For example, he never makes unwanted sounds when he’s changing from sticks to brushes to mallets. In 20-plus years I’ve never seen him miss or muff a beat. He can go from soloing to the groove as fast as anyone. It seems he’s always in both places; it’s all one thing for him.”
“Lewis will stay right in the pocket, while doing some of the most creative stuff being played,” affirmed bassist Peter Washington, Nash’s long-time partner in Flanagan’s trio. “A lot of guys feel swinging and grooving holds them back. To him, it sets him free!”
“I don’t know if I made a conscious effort to be adaptable,” Nash said. “I always played in a way that I felt would add flavor and variety rather than bring all the attention to me. I’m looking for the beauty in my instrument. There’s beauty in power as well. But a lot of sounds are available to utilize. People hear the tonal detail and clarity, and they tell me that my approach is like a percussionist in the symphony. But my concept comes out of hard-swinging jazz. I try to interject the energy and swagger of funky rhythms into swinging, straight-ahead music—although when you play the rhythms of R&B and hip-hop on a drumset tuned for playing jazz, the sound is not the same.”
Nash came to hardcore jazz rather late in the game. As a teenager he played football (cornerback) and played drums for fun in dance bands around Phoenix, Arizona, his home town, before catching the jazz bug.
“My mother listened to a lot of blues—B.B. King and Muddy Waters and so on,” Nash said in July. A T-Bone Walker jump blues on the car stereo cosigned the statement. “I was less attracted to Rock elements in the drumming of Tony Williams, Billy Cobham, Jack DeJohnette with Miles, and other guys who played fusion, than to the funkier, danceable things. My influences went from James Brown’s drummers or the feeling of Al Green’s Stax records to the people who laid the foundation in jazz drumming. Fusion influences came later, as my knowledge of music increased, whereas that’s the first stuff some people from my age group got into.
“R&B wasn’t played as loud and hard in the ‘60s and ‘70s. More guys played time on the ride cymbal, like in jazz. Once disco and a certain period of funk became prominent, everything was on the hi-hats, and the bass drums and everything else got a fatter, heavier sound that you wouldn’t normally play in a jazz context, so the genres started to separate sonically.”
During the disco era, Nash, who majored in broadcast journalism at Arizona State, was a fixture on the sparse Phoenix jazz scene, playing in local rhythm sections with hired gun saxophonists like Sonny Stitt and Art Pepper. He led his own combo, and wore bells on his ankles in a duo with saxophonist Allan Chase that opened for acts like Old and New Dreams, Sun Ra, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
On the strength of a grant to study drums with Max Roach and a concurrent phone call to audition with Betty Carter, who hired him on the spot, Nash moved to Brooklyn in the winter of 1980-81. There he joined a talented crop of young drummers who included Kenny Washington, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Jeff Watts, and Ralph Peterson.
“We had a lot of leeway to pursue our individual approaches,” Nash said. “For instance, Art Blakey or Jimmy Cobb might influence how you kept time on the ride cymbal, while at the same time you’d study the solo concept of Max or Elvin. The major innovators from the ‘40s through the ‘60s dealt with a true swinging jazz conception that wasn’t terribly influenced by rhythm-and-blues, and didn’t drastically change that approach. But the advent of genre grooves from soul and funk and R&B, and the greater visibility of Latin and Afro-Cuban elements, caused the concept to adapt from the swinging, triplet-based ride cymbal feeling to a less linear straight-eighth feeling.”
Ensconced in New York, Nash refined his approach, going to clubs to watch Higgins, Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Arthur Taylor, Billy Hart, Victor Lewis and Freddie Waits, figuring out which techniques to use and which to discard. On the road with Betty Carter from 1981-84 and as an ongoing member of Ron Carter’s two-bass quintet and nonet for the subsequent decade, he found tough-love laboratories in which to apply his discoveries.
The singer insisted on precisely calibrated tempos and feels, but took great pains to discourage her young accompanists from playing sets by rote.
“My whole time with Betty, at every rehearsal, she stressed not to lean on clichés, to search for something fresh to play,” Nash recalled. “You knew you couldn’t go on automatic pilot; she’d turn and say, ‘You already played that; play something else.’ You’d be on edge, wondering what change of pace is coming.”
“Ron likes to use a lot of different colors,” he continued, adding that he considers the bassist a primary mentor. “He taught me a lot about tuning, and on some of his music I could be more percussionistic, and utilize finger cymbals, wind chimes and castanets. Steve Kroon often was playing percussion, and I incorporated what Steve did into my drumset.”
“Betty told me that he read music very well,” Carter said. “One thing to his advantage is that he plays the form. Many drummers don’t. I had Lewis take up vibes, to help him visualize the piano keyboard when he soloed. He did very well. He started to study composition, wrote some nice melodies, and expanded his view of the drums as more melodic than they normally are thought to be.”
“I tune the intervals wide enough to give the impression of melodic movement up or down a scale when I play a fill,” Nash elaborated. “I like to interject phrases not just to fill space, but to continue articulating the line I just heard the soloist play. If it’s a horn player taking a breath, I’m almost thinking of continuing his linear thought process until he returns the horn to his mouth, and maybe inspire his rhythmic direction.”
During the ‘80s, while Nash was refining these ideas, Marvin “Smitty” Smith developed ways to make complex meters flow with Steve Coleman and Dave Holland. Jeff Watts began to merge the rhythms of timba with the patterns of Elvin Jones. Ralph Peterson, Carl Allen and Herlin Riley layered New Orleans streetbeats into swing feels. Younger drummers went to their gigs, copied them, and mainstreamed each vocabulary increment into next-generation argot. With the exception of a year of steady touring with Branford Marsalis, Nash played with established, older musicians “with one foot in the history of the music,” and interacted less frequently with his peer group.
“I wanted to immerse myself in the lineage, to interact with movers and shakers in the music from further back,” he said. “I knew I wasn’t going to lose my desire to be creative or forget how to explore.”
Some think that Nash’s impact on the younger branches of the drum tree is less pronounced than it ought to be.
“Most of the younger drummers weren’t in the audience when Roland Hanna and Ron Carter and Tommy Flanagan were playing,” Washington said. “But on every level, Lewis brought something to the drums as unique as the guys who played with Branford and Wynton or M-Base.”
“Once critics hop on a guy’s bandwagon, young drummers looking for someone to listen to will go that way,” Carter said. “Lewis isn’t flashy or domineering in the negative way that drummers can be. I can’t think of another drummer in any age category who plays brushes so well. Not many read as well as he does, and even fewer know how to tune the drums. But critics are less aware of these aspects, and they don’t tune into Lewis when they talk about drummers who are important and can take the drum scene another step, unfortunately for them and for the history of the drums.”
“My influence would have more to do with the sound of the instrument and the clarity of execution than any stylistic development,” Nash remarked, and younger drummers agree.
“Lewis can play with authority like Elvin Jones and also the way Vernell Fournier played with Ahmad Jamal,” said Yellowjackets drummer Marcus Baylor, a former Nash student. “That’s a lot of ground to cover. He’s the most musical drummer of our time period, one of the musical drummers ever.”
“A lot of situations that I play in cause Lewis to pop into my mind,” said Kendrick Scott. “I’ve studied his playing so much that I think, ‘Oh, what would Lewis play right here? It would probably be perfect.’”
“We’re not supposed to stay where Tommy was,” Nash said during a January engagement at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Coca, where a quartet under his leadership—Washington, pianist Renee Rosnes and vibraphonist Steve Nelson—was performing Flanagan-associated repertoire. “He gave us a carpet and said, ‘Okay, I’m giving you these tools; now what are you going to do with them?’
“Tommy didn’t necessarily want me to play in a way that was reminiscent of the ‘40s or ‘50s or ‘60s. He wanted me to play with him right now—which was the ‘90s. He was an open book. When I did things that come out of developments more recent than you might associate with his roots, he’d look up and I’d see him smile and his eyes gleam. If you remain open moment to moment with all your intelligence and skills, and don’t preconceive or predirect where you’re going, that’s as fresh and modern as you can be, whatever style you’re playing.”
In 1998, Nash decided that it was time to augment his numerous opportunities “to interject my ideas and musical viewpoint in groups where I’m a sideman” and construct a context to allow him “complete freedom to express what I feel.” He organized a septet, and booked himself into the Village Vanguard, the first of several Vanguard combos of various sizes, comprised of long-time associates and talented youngbloods. Building on his yearly Vanguard gig, he’s expanded his activity, and in 2003 and 2004 recorded the Japan-market CDs It Don’t Mean A Thing and Stompin’ At The Savoy, with Washington, Nelson, and pianist Jeb Patton. As of this writing, his 2007 calendar includes 10 weeks as a leader.
During the JVC Festival in June, Nash played the Vanguard with a quintet comprising Wilson, Washington, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, and pianist Gerald Clayton. The less-traveled repertoire, spanning the ‘60s through the ‘80s, included well-wrought tunes by Walter Davis, Jr. (“Pranayama”), Don Pullen (“Sing Me A Song Everlasting”), Thad Jones (“Ain’t Nothin’ Nu”), Kenny Barron (“New York Attitude”), James Williams (“Alter Ego”), and Johnny Mandel (“I Never Told You”). Nash emceed and took a couple of drum features. Otherwise, he gave the soloists much rein, swung mightily, and functioned, as Washington noted, “as the same supportive, musical drummer.”
“Everything depends on how daring you want to be,” he said. “Parameters exist in any musical situation, and they force you to get the most from the least. You try not to limit yourself to ‘this is how you’re supposed to play this kind of music.’ You jump in, let your ears dictate, and keep all options on the table. I might borrow some sound or approach from an avant garde context that works in the middle of trading fours on a blues. Sound can cross genres and styles. It’s just a sound. It’s your job to figure out how to use that sound tastefully and in context. The more things you’ve done, the more you’ll be able to interject something new.”
Lewis Nash (WKCR, December 1, 2005) – re Nash-Wilson duo at Sweet Rhythm:
TP: [MUSIC: McCoy Tyner-Lewis Nash duo]
Duets. Lewis records so much and in so many different contexts and situations, that doing an hour on your work is like looking for the needle in the haystack. You’ll be quite present in NYC area in December and directly after the New York. Next week at Dizzy’s Room with Donal Fox and George Mraz. The following week is week one of Cedar Walton’s annual fortnight at the Village Vanguard with Roy & David. Then Umbria with Joe Locke. Then at Dizzy’s Room on January 10th with Flanagan tribute, with Renee, Peter & Steve Nelson. Frequent associates.
How did the duo project with Steve Wilson come to pass? You go back a ways, and you a few records with him on Criss-Cross in the early ‘90s.
LEWIS: That’s correct. Steve and I have played through the years in various situations. As far as the duo format, I enjoy that with the horns, and, as we just heard on the cut with me and McCoy Tyner, with the piano, and I’ve done duo with organ, of course, duo with guitar even. The duo situation is a challenge in many ways. In other ways, it’s pretty much just like any other time you go to play music. You deal with certain repertoire or whatever, with one another musician, and you try to make music as best you can interacting with that person.
TP: But this is a working duo, of sorts, and a duo you’ve both chosen to stick with. It’s not a one-off situation.
LEWIS: That’s right. Steve came to mind for me when I was thinking about doing this as someone I enjoyed playing with, number one, and also someone whom I felt I’d have a nice working rapport with musically for a number of reasons, not least of which is that his time is so great. So when someone has really good time internally, you can try a lot of different things which don’t necessarily have to spell out where you are metrically or in a form. A lot of times, Steve and I come out at the right place as if it just happened naturally. I don’t have to worry about making sure that I mark time for him when we’re playing. He’s one of the musicians I enjoy playing with in any situation, but particularly in the duo.
TP: How would it differ than playing in a rhythm section with Peter Washington or George Mraz, two of the master jazz bassists on the planet?
LEWIS: First of all, there’s a lot more space without the chordal instrument being there. How that would differ from a bass and drum situation is that the sound of Steve’s instrument, of course, won’t be in that bass range, to fill out some of that range I’ll often play different patterns or motifs between the low toms and the bass drum, things like that, to give some weight and low-end sound to the duo. Sometimes Steve will even play bass-type lines, whether walking or harmonically in the bass range. We basically try to give as much of a feeling of arrangement and orchestration as we can with the two instruments.
TP: You mentioned to me that your duo playing goes back to college days when you attended Arizona State University, where one of your fellow underclassmen was the saxophonist Allan Chase, who now runs the jazz department at New England Conservatory. I think you mentioned that you and he would open up as a duo for groups like Old and New Dreams, the Art Ensemble of Chicago…
LEWIS: Mmm-hmm. Sun Ra.
TP: George Adams and Don Pullen. So not all your fans may know that you have roots in that direction as well as creating modern extensions and variations on the masters of jazz lifeblood, Kenny Clarke and Max Roach. People who played with those people appreciate your playing for your ability to put your own spin on what they did in an idiomatic manner, but they don’t necessarily know about that other aspect of your tonal personality.
LEWIS: Well, those were interesting times. It’s before I moved to New York. I was still going to college. It was a good time and a good place for me to experiment with some different things, and Allan Chase and I had a duo, and we played around Phoenix. We opened for those people you mentioned, groups like that. That’s when I first met Ed Blackwell, when he came to Phoenix, playing with Old and New Dreams. I met the guys in the Art Ensemble of Chicago. I was always open to fresh things. Even though, as you mentioned, a lot of fans and listeners may not be aware of that experience I’ve had in that realm, still I always try to bring, even to the more conventional (for want of a better word) situations I play in…I always try to bring a feeling of freshness and openness to those situations that you might expect in a more open musical situation.
TP: One thing that might also be surprising to some people is that you came to hardcore jazz fairly late in the game. You weren’t a teenage student of every record of Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones. It didn’t really happen until college.
LEWIS: Right. In my high school years I was playing a lot of R&B, Funk, Earth, Wind & Fire, James Brown type stuff, and I was playing football and playing sports, and being a jazz musician was the furthest thing from my mind.
TP: Is there any connection between the way you developed—not starting early, but learning rudiments, time, vibe, etc.?
LEWIS: You know, I wonder. I don’t know if I can say with any certainty. But the fact that it was always something I did for fun and I never thought in those earlier days about “this is what I want to do for a living, this is what drives me, this is what I’m here to do”—I didn’t have those thoughts. I was a broadcast journalism major, and my mentor…I didn’t know him, but Max Robinson, who used to be on ABC News, the first African-American anchor. I wanted to do things like that, and follow in those footsteps. But the music started to rope me in.
TP: When did it start to become apparent to you that you were going to become a musician and not a voice?
LEWIS: I’m a voice on the drums, I hope. But I had a professor at Arizona State whose name is Charles Argersinger. He still teaches in Washington State now. One day he pulled me aside in the hallway at Arizona State, and he asked me point-blank: “Lewis, you’re not a music major, are you.” “No.” “You’re not planning to go into music as a career, are you?” “Nope.” He said, “I think you’re making a mistake.”
TP: Why did he think that? Did he say?
LEWIS: He didn’t really spell it out, but I assume he’d heard a lot of young musicians and people he felt had potential or didn’t have potential, and he probably… He did say that “‘I think you’re someone who could go somewhere in this, and you should think about it.”
TP: What qualities were people hearing at that time? You were playing in Phoenix in rhythm section, behind Art Pepper or Sonny Stitt. What were those experiences like? Were they harsh? Were they supportive?
LEWIS: They were demanding, but not harsh. I met Sonny Stitt on the stage. I played a week. We had no rehearsal, we just came in as the local rhythm section. Of course, he used to do that all the time. The first tune he counted off I think was Cherokee at some breakneck, ridiculously fast tempo, and that was, “Hello, I’m Sonny Stitt.” Those kinds of experiences for a young musician…it’s great. It just throws you right into the fire.
TP: As far as learning the correct tone… Were you thinking by that time of the way Max Roach might be handling this situation, or Billy Higgins, or Philly Joe Jones, or Shadow Wilson, etc.? Were you trying to bring any of that vocabulary to bear by that time?
TP: How did you do that without seeing them? Drums is kind of a visual instrument, isn’t it? You have to learn to put your body in position to make transitions and so on.
LEWIS: That’s true. I didn’t have very much exposure to these great drummers—I should say none—in terms of watching them. I didn’t see any of the great names drumming-wise… Actually, that’s not true. I did see and hear Dannie Richmond with Mingus in the late ‘70s, and Blackwell. But Max and Elvin, Tony Williams, until I came to New York, I didn’t have a chance to observe them up-close, the way we do, putting them under the microscope and watching every little thing they do.
TP: How did you pick up vocabulary?
LEWIS: What I heard on the records, I tried to emulate and find the best way to reproduce those kinds of sounds and phrases, and hope that what I came up with was close.
TP: you came out of Phoenix with Betty Carter, didn’t you.
LEWIS: Yes, I did. Another into-the-fire type situation. Freddie Waits actually recommended me to her. I had met him. He came through Phoenix with the Billy Taylor Trio.
TP: I recall you saying that she was very specific and precise about tempos and feels, but wanted you to be creative within those parameters.
LEWIS: That’s very correct. It’s a good way of putting it. She knew exactly what she wanted, and sometimes we didn’t quite know how to give her that in the best way, but we’d try to find it. It was a challenge to play with her at that stage of my career. It was probably the best thing for me then.
TP: The same could be said for a number of musicians in your generation who came up in that tough-love crucible that was the Betty Carter band.
[MUSIC: “Stomping At the Savoy”; “Tickle-Toe”; then with Celtic Jazz Collective, w/ Paddy Keenan on bagpipes]
TP: You were saying that part of the appeal of performing with Steve Wilson is his musicality, his time. You both share a quality of being extremely well-grounded in the fundamentals. He plays a lot of big band sections, studio things, but when it comes to improvising and doing something creative, he’s completely prepared to do that as well. You’re a few years older, but coming out of similar experiences. Last year, there was a month when you did a weekly duo at Sweet Rhythm. How did it evolve from beginning to end.
LEWIS: Each time we did it, of course, you build on the previous time in terms of ideas, the way things evolve musically. That was good for us, because we’re both busy doing so many other things, and we have a limited amount of time that we can dedicate to the duo projects. So when we had that string of performances, that really helped us to solidify the sound we heard for the duo at that time.
TP: Did the sound evolve over the month, or did it remain on the template on which it began?
LEWIS: I don’t know if the sound evolved, but the way that we approached probably became freer than when we first started. We’re still trying to find that happy medium, that balance between freedom and the opposite of that…
TP: Freedom and form, or whatever it is. You’re the kind of musician who’s able to find freedom within form in situations that other people might handle by rote. You take those fundamentals and you always seem to find a new twist or some vocabulary of your own. How much do you work on that off the bandstand? How much comes to you when you’re on the bandstand?
LEWIS: I would say that a lot of it comes while you’re on the bandstand in the middle of the moment. But you have to be daring, brave enough to take a chance in a particular situation where it’s easy to play it safe. I’m always trying to make whatever I play be logical. Just because it’s logical doesn’t mean it has to be corny or rote. But some of the most creative things done in a musical situation I think can be considered logically a part of what’s going on without them being done over and over again or something common.
TP: But you play on a lot of one-off sessions. You might not have played with the person before. You might be seeing the music for the first time. A lot of money is at stake—studio time. How do you keep both processes going, the imperative of trying to do something to at least satisfy even yourself that you’re not doing it the way it was done before, but also fulfilling the function? Is it a process of logic really?
LEWIS: It really is. I think so. I can think of many recording sessions where just what you mentioned is the case. You’re seeing the music for the first time. You’re probably not going to play it again after that live, it’s just for this recording, but maybe the music is challenging in certain ways, maybe form-wise or changing meters or something you’re just not familiar with, or maybe it’s musicians who you don’t play with all the time, so you’re still trying to establish the kind of rapport in the studio playing. So when you have these kinds of challenges, you always fall back on your basic musicianship. For horn players, it might be: Am I playing in tune? Am I reading this part correctly? Am I making these changes? And so on. For me in the rhythm section: “Am I setting up the figures, or am I making the transitions in the music smooth enough so there’s a certain flow where the other musicians can do whatever it is they need to do? Am I helping make sure that everyone who’s playing feels a certain comfort zone that allows them to play to the best of their ability? Is the time feel steady? Am I helping them to feel whatever changes might be going on in the music to the best of my ability from the drums?
TP: A lot of people in jazz particularly, when improvising on their instruments, think of other instruments. Trumpeters think of saxophones, that sort of thing. In that regard, I’ll bring up a comment I once read from Max Roach, which is that you don’t play melody on the drums, you play rhythmic designs on the drums, which is a slightly different thing, and almost gives the illusion of melody. I don’t know if you would subscribe to that statement or not. But one characteristic of your tonal personality is that you play rhythmic designs within the flow of a moment. Can you talk about creating in that way?
LEWIS: The melodic impression comes from the fact the rhythmic variations that may be played on the drumset give the feeling of a melodic line in the way the rhythms are put together. Every melody has a rhythmic component. So when you’re expressing yourself in phrases which have the same types of rhythmic components that melodic lines have, then you’re going to give the impression that you’re playing a melody. But this kind of linear approach to playing the drums of which Max Roach was the founding father in the music is something that really attracts me. It’s something I like to do or attempt to do. I’m always trying to find a way to keep that approach to playing the drums somehow involved in the evolution of the music, so that’s not just thrown away or thrown out as something that was done in the past, but it’s being made to find a contemporary way… I don’t know if that’s the best way of putting it. But a way of today’s creative jazz playing or creative improvising, utilizing that approach to the drums as well as all the other ones.
TP: Try to parse that a bit. By “today’s approach to the drums,” are you talking about incorporating the way drummers play in contemporary dance-oriented music, or the broader rhythmic palette that’s more commonly available to jazz drummers now?
LEWIS: I mean that in the sense that a lot of other influences have become a part of playing this music, influences from the various so-called world musics, and also in terms of the more recent developments in drumming going back to the ‘60s and ‘70s with Tony Williams and Elvin and Roy Haynes, who has been a part of it, it seems like, forever—and still is. That kind of freshness, without losing the approach of that linear style. I guess always trying to find a way to keep that as a part of the equation.
TP: Playing 100-150 gigs a year with Tommy Flanagan for ten years, and many gigs over a long period with Ron Carter, would be a very good way of honing those skills and that sensibility.
LEWIS: I would say so, yes. And all of the recording sessions as well. Because there you have a chance to hear back right away things that you try, and you can go in and listen and say, “Oh, okay, that didn’t come out quite like I wanted it to; I can go back and try a different thing again.” So being in the studio a lot has been helpful in refining or defining whatever it is I’m trying to do.
[MUSIC: From Sea Changes, “Verdandi”; Love Letters, NTB]
TP: You’ve done five-six dates for Japan with this group (Chestnut-Mraz-Nash), and performed about a month ago at Dizzy’s Room with them. By the way, wasn’t Elvin Jones the drummer on the original performance of Verdandi, which Tommy Flanagan made a staple of his ‘90s repertoire. With Manhattan Trinity, it’s a configuration put together for the studio that becomes a working group. It must be very different when you do it live.
LEWIS: Yes. Especially since we hadn’t really established a live group personality yet. Everything had been done in the studio.
TP: And the producer gives you the tune list and tells you to do something with it.
LEWIS: Yes. But given the level of musicianship with Cyrus and George, we could pretty much do whatever we wanted and make it work. So it’s a great situation to be part of.
TP: We were talking about being creative and fulfilling the function in the studio. We’ll play now one Grammy-winner and one Grammy-nominee record that Lewis was part of. You performed on Nancy Wilson’s RSVP this year, which won the 2005 Jazz Vocal Grammy, and you appeared on Gerald Wilson’s 2004 Grammy-nominated date, New York Sound.
[MUSIC: Nancy Wilson, “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart”; Gerald Wilson, “Jeri,” from In My Time]
TP: Since 1998, you’ve been leading ensembles of varying sizes—septets, quintets, quartets, trios, been in the Vanguard, been at Dizzy’s at the Kaplan Playhouse. No records yet, though. Only a couple of dates with trios for the Japanese market on somewhat circumscribed repertoire. It seems every year that you’re doing more and more, gradually building up repertoire and a base of concerts on which other people can draw in recognizing you as a bandleader. What are your aspirations in this regard?
LEWIS: I think they are never-ending for someone who desires to continue to grow musically. I think about various things I’d like to do every day that I haven’t done yet. Wearing the bandleader hat takes a lot of work and takes a lot of time and effort, but it’s worthwhile to watch things come to fruition that began as just an idea or a thought. With that in mind, I’d like to do a lot more things in the future. Nothing specific comes to mind right now, but we have unlimited possibilities.
[MUSIC: Diaspora, from Blues for Marcus]
[END OF CONVERSATION]
Lewis Nash (WKCR, June 26, 2006):
[MUSIC: Kenny Drew Trio, Apasionata]
TP: That featured one of the most prominent drum-bass combinations of our time, Lewis Nash and Peter Washington, who’ve been playing on bandstands countless during the ‘90s with Tommy Flanagan, and are performing together this week in the Lewis Nash Quintet at the Village Vanguard. Since 1999, when you first seriously undertook leading groups and performing out with them… This will be your second group-leader gig this year on New York bandstands. You were at Dizzy’s Room in January. You’ve played often with a septet, and lately a trio as well with Steve Nelson and Peter Washington, and a duo with Steve Wilson. Is this quintet a new band for you?
LEWIS: The newness this week is basically having Gerald Clayton on piano. In the past, generally it’s been Mulgrew Miller or Renee Rosnes or no piano, and others on occasion. But Gerald is a fantastic young musician who is certainly going to make a name for himself. Many people are aware that he’s the son of bassist-arranger John Clayton.
TP: New repertoire this week?
LEWIS: A few things. We do have all this various repertoire in a soup, and each night, depending on the vibe or feeling, I decide whether we’re going to play it or not. Basically, this week is not so much about new repertoire, although I generally like to do a gig in town when I do have something new to offer. But I didn’t want to let a whole year go by without playing at the Vanguard. So this week really is about our creativity on the stage in the moment no matter what we play, because there won’t be any incredible unveilings of new material.
TP: Do you approach your role, your performance in any different manner when you’re leading a group versus playing as a sideman? Does your point of view become the guiding flow for the performances when you’re leading the group? Although of course, it would in other ways when you’re a sideman.
LEWIS: Of course, since it’s more or less my musical vision in that sense, I am providing some direction for how I want it to go pacing-wise and all of that. But I am actually trying to allow everyone else to establish a direction without dictating where I feel it should go. I don’t like that kind of dictatorial way of approaching it from a bandleading standpoint. I like to be open to the input from everyone else. So while I am selecting the set and the pieces, and kind of deciding how long they’re going to be and all that, I just give some basic parameters and then let everybody go where it’s going to go.
TP: You’ve also developed a circle of people around you, good friends with busy schedules who’ve made time to play on your gigs and help develop the sound of your band.
LEWIS: You bring to mind several things to me. For me, I was listening to and enjoying Bill [Stewart]’s interview on the way here, and some of the things you were talking about… As a sideman, I have a lot of different varieties of things that I’m really happy to do, and fortunate to be able to do. So I get a lot of different looks and feels, musically speaking, from all these different things I’m doing, so when I come to do my thing, I can bring elements of those various things to mind. But also, I don’t feel like I have to necessarily explore some of the other things that I explore in other situations to greater depth just because it’s my situation. I might feel like I can do some other things. And those things may change each time I play live as a leader. But I’m so satisfied that I don’t feel a need to explore so many different varieties of things in my own situation. I can concentrate on certain things.
TP: Has being a leader evolved your own drum technique or sense of flow as a drummer? Do you find that you do certain things that are idiosyncratic to you more readily than you would in sideman situations? Ways of hitting beats…
LEWIS: Not so much now. Maybe in the earlier years of deciding to do things as a leader, that might have been the case. But I’m not even sure then how much it was the case. Because so much of how I approach the instrument and how I approach making music with people is consistent, no matter what. So whereas there may be things I’m less apt to do in one situation versus another because of the type of music or the style or whatever, I think generally there is a consistent thread that you can hear running through everything. I can tell it’s me. Whether it’s a piece of music that’s quirky and out, or if it’s a piece of music that’s straight down the middle, swinging, I know how I touch the drums, I can hear that same consistency throughout that. I think that’s an important thing.
TP: You went out with Betty Carter in 1981. So you’ve been a working professional New York musician for 25 years. There’s 25 years of musical history that you’re part of now. In an overall sense, what are some of the salient things you’ve seen change in the musical ideas people are articulating now vis-a-vis 1981, when you came up. There are continuities, but it’s a very different world.
LEWIS: You could say that in many respects. I’m not sure I’d be the best arbiter of that. I came here in 1980 the first time, and I was going around to hear as much music as I could possibly hear. At the same time, I was taking some lessons with Freddie Waits. There were certain guys who were working quite a bit. Billy Hart seemed to be everywhere in those days; he was playing every week somewhere, or it seemed like two different places a night at times! Some of the greats were still leading bands—Woody Shaw, Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey, Betty Carter (whose band I was in). There were these kind of iconic leaders who were still around, and young guys wanted to be in their bands and hone their craft and whatnot. For me, I tried to bring a certain sensibility to the music. When I got here to play with Betty, before that in Arizona, I had been playing a lot of different things with people who’d come through town—Sonny Stitt and people like that when they’d pick up a rhythm section—but I also had an ear to the more exploratory things. I had a duo with saxophonist Allan Chase, and we opened concerts in Phoenix—before I even moved to New York—for Old And New Dreams, which is how I met Ed Blackwell and Dewey and Don and Charlie Haden. Then we opened for the Art Ensemble of Chicago, we opened for Sun Ra., playing this duo. I had bells on my ankles. We were doing a lot of interesting and exploratory things. So I always had an ear to those kinds of things. But what I realized was that I didn’t want to marginalize myself… I don’t know if that’s really the right way of putting it. But I wanted to take advantage of whatever I could get from the people who had been the movers and shakers in the music further back, the Betty Carters and Ron Carters and Tommy Flanagans and people like that. I didn’t want to not be able to associate myself with that lineage.
TP: You didn’t want to cut yourself off.
LEWIS: No. So I felt like, okay, at some point in the future, I can always… I’m not going to lose my desire to be creative, I’m not going to forget how to explore. So I wanted to make sure I immersed myself in where the music was coming from to such an extent that I had an opportunity to interact with these great players. So over time, I have fortunately been able to do that. People like Horace Silver and McCoy and all these different people I’ve played with, all of that has contributed to whatever it is I’m offering as a bandleader, I hope.
TP: Another thing I touched on a little earlier with Bill, we were discussing about the ways in which over the last 15 years odd meters and world rhythmic structures have become more part of the musical vernacular rather than slightly more exotic, as it was in the ‘80s. From your perspective, as someone who became established during the ‘80s, before people like Danilo Perez and Ed Simon came to town, and when Steve Coleman was just starting to deal with the things he did with Dave Holland… How do you see those developments affecting the rhythmic template of jazz these days? Has that changed a lot?
LEWIS: I think it’s just become more of a wide palette, I guess. The stuff has always been there, people have been exploring things from Max and Brubeck and various people in the ‘50s, and there’s already a precedent in world music. So I think the foundation was already laid for people to explore a lot of different things, whether it’s odd meters, whether it’s interesting and different harmonic ideas or structural things with tunes that are not necessarily 32-bar song forms of AABA. People have been exploring a lot of different things for a long time. What you have to learn how to do is incorporate all of it, and not be afraid of any challenges, and then also not be afraid to be basic, too. You can be complicated and simple, and both things work. Also, everyone has a different thing to contribute to this thing. We’re not all supposed to do the same thing.
TP: Did anything new happen in the last 15 years? How would say the sound of jazz in 2006… If you’d left the planet in 1990, came back now, and hadn’t heard any jazz since, what changes would you discern?
LEWIS: I leave the planet on a regular basis, but I do come back. You know, Ted, I really never think of it in those terms. But I suppose the same way there’s new technologies… If you left the planet, came back 15 years later, and the Internet. So I imagine for your ear, yes, but when you’re in it, you can’t hear or observe the changes so clearly, I guess. It might be like if you go away and come back home and see someone who was an adolescent when you left, and when you come back they’re grown up but it’s the same person. That probably didn’t answer your question.
TP: It didn’t, but that’s fine. As Charlie Parker once said immortally on that video, “music speaks louder than words.” In 2003-04, or maybe in 2004-05 you did a few recordings for M&I, the Japanese label…
[MUSIC: “Tico, Tico”]
What’s it like to play so much with the same bass player? You’ve played a lot with George Mraz over the years, with Christian McBride and Ron Carter. But the names Washington and Nash go together in a certain interesting way. How has it evolved?
LEWIS: There are certain vibes that you feel from musicians when you play with them for the first time. Even though I’ve played with a lot of different bass players, as you’ve mentioned, the special rapport I have with Peter… I have a special rapport with the other guys you mentioned as well. But with Peter, I don’t have to worry about whether he’s going to be doing what I need him to do to make everything come across like I’d like it to. You were asking me if I’m thinking about the directions of how things are progressing as we’re playing with my group. With Peter as the bass anchor, there are certain things I know are going to be in place, and I don’t have to worry about those things. They are unspoken things. It’s telepathic almost. So it’s kind of a comfort zone, a comfort level having him there that allows me to feel free to do a lot of things that I might not attempt.
TP: Can you name what a couple of those things might be?
LEWIS: He can sense when I’m orchestrating things a certain way and breaking the time, exactly what to do to keep the forward momentum of the time going, so it doesn’t seem like we both pulled the rug out from under everyone else. In other words, we kind of share the duties of keeping the forward propulsion of the music going. Also, sometimes I can just look to him and nod if I want to change the feel, and he knows to go wherever I’m trying to make it go. His ears are wide open. He picks great notes in his walking bass lines. I’m often keying off of the bass for the harmonic structure and framework of the tune much more than the piano comping or something like singing the tune in my head. I’m more focused on the movement of the bassline.
TP: I recall reading Max Roach saying that there’s no such thing as melodic drums, but there is such a thing as rhythmic design, and people sometimes confuse rhythmic design for playing melody on the drums. You seem always to be very conscious of rhythmic design within the forward motion. How has that concept evolved for you?
LEWIS: That rhythmic design that Max was talking about, in the sense he’s speaking about the melodic interpretation… Another word I’ve heard for it is linear. I tune the drums in a way that the intervals are wide enough that it can give the impression of melodic movement. If I play certain fills, and the drums are extremely close in the tuning, you don’t get the sense of separation and you don’t get the sense of movement up or down a scale. So if I tune the drums at wider intervals, then it seems to give more of an impression that I’m playing some types of melodic things. I like to interject phrases that are not just drum fills, but maybe necessarily a continuation of the line I might have heard the soloist just playing, except I’m articulating it on the drums, so when he takes a breath (if it’s a horn player), I’m almost thinking in terms of continuing his linear thought process on the drums until he puts the horn back to his mouth, and maybe inspire him to go rhythmically in one direction or another, rather than just a drum fill for the sake of filling space and very drum-oriented—I might make it more linear.
TP: Let me repeat a couple of questions I asked Bill Stewart before. I asked him early on in his career how aware he was of the history of the drums in reference to his own development, and, if he emulated other iconic drummers, who some of those drummers might have been. That led to asking him at what point he got beyond those influences and began to assimilate them into his own thing.
LEWIS: Of course, anyone who gets involved in this music at the drums is going to have to go through a certain group of players if they’re really going to say that they’ve studied the music and the history of jazz drumming. For me, in my earliest development, before I really started playing jazz, I was playing a lot of R&B and funk, and that’s pretty much what I was playing. So I wasn’t as… Coming from an R&B, funk and blues… My mother used to listen to a lot of blues—B.B. King and Muddy Waters and that stuff. Coming from that kind of background, I wasn’t necessarily as attracted to the Rock elements, the fusion stuff so much. Even though I could appreciate the drumming aspects of Tony and Billy Cobham and the guys who played in the fusion genre, I was more attracted to the funkier, danceable things at that time, in those earlier years. Then once I became aware of people like Max Roach and Roy Haynes and Philly Joe Jones, Elvin, Jimmy Cobb, and all the various people, then I started to explore the possibilities of that approach to playing the drums. So my influences went from James Brown’s drummers and the Stax records, Al Green and that whole feel, to the guys I just mentioned in straight-ahead jazz, Kenny Clarke and those people who laid the foundation in jazz drumming. So in a way, I have less of the influences of, say, the fusion era, like Tony and Billy Cobham, Jack DeJohnette with Miles, in that context. That stuff actually came later rather than earlier, whereas for some guys that’s some of the first stuff they got into. Whereas for me, I got into the other stuff, and then I kind of backtracked. With my knowledge of music being a little greater, than I think I was able to appreciate and assimilate more of the elements of the more modern players…
TP: How would you assimilate vocabulary? Playing along with records and trying to replicate the style?
LEWIS: Yeah. Playing along. Because then you turn it up loud, or you have headphones and you’re playing along, and you can almost interject yourself into the band, in a sense. That’s one way of beginning to assimilating some of the vocabulary, just playing along.
TP: Were a lot of these guys coming through your town?
LEWIS: No, not that many people came through Phoenix. I didn’t see much.
TP: Probably you’d heard Ed Blackwell before you opened for Old & New Dreams.
TP: But seeing him probably put a whole different spin on what he was doing.
LEWIS: Definitely. But I didn’t get to see that many great players. Only towards the end, before I eventually came to New York in the late ‘70s… As I mentioned earlier, Sonny Stitt came through town and I played with him, and I’d meet and see other people that way. I heard Tony Williams with VSOP I think in ‘78 or ‘79. Yeah, I began to see and hear a few people like that. But coming to New York and being able to sit in the front row of the Vanguard to watch and listen to Elvin, yeah, there wasn’t anything like that going on in Phoenix, I’m afraid.
TP: Many young aspirants will be sitting in the catbird seat or the Vanguard this week, and get there when the doors open at 8:15 to get a bird’s eye view of Lewis Nash and quintet… This puts you together with Billy Hart, who as you said was playing everywhere when you came to town… Dark Shadows.
[MUSIC: “Dark Shadows:; Ray Bryant (RRB), “Glory, Glory”; Hannibal-George Adams, Cry]
We heard Lewis getting into a very African conception of the trapset. I think you said you heard Sunny Ade’s talking drummers and were trying to get that quality, as well as Edward Blackwell. And it doesn’t get any more fundamental than Glory, Glory.
We’ll hear recordings Lewis made with several people who recently passed on. Jackie McLean, and John Hicks, with whom you performed on three Joe Lovano nonet recordings. Did you ever record trio with John?
LEWIS: I didn’t record trio with John, but I made gigs in trio with him. He brought something special to any situation. But in the Lovano dates and in the nonet, John was such an integral part of the sound of that group.
TP: That nonet gig is an interesting one, because there’s lots of room for you to roam and travel rhythmically and sonics to weave in and out of. Since Lovano himself likes to play drums… Unfortunately, the only tracks that are applicable are 10-16 minutes…
[MUSIC: w/ Jackie McLean, “Little Melonae”]
LEWIS: It was an interesting date, because I think that may have been the first time that Jackie and Junko met, in the studio. Of course, that happens quite often in jazz anyway. I remember it very well, because I remember someone in the studio mentioning something about intonation, probably someone associated with the label, some peripheral person, and I remember hearing Jackie say, “I’ve played out of tune my whole life; why should I start playing in tune NOW?” I thought that was the funniest thing I had… It was tongue-in-cheek, it was just everything. It lightened up the session and allowed us just to go ahead and play. It was a funny comment.
TP: When you hear Lewis Nash, you’ll be hearing someone who’s embodied the experiences of playing on a regular basis, at one point or another, for ten years with Tommy Flanagan, on many occasions with Tommy Flanagan’s good friend Sonny Rollins, with Ron Carter for years, with Betty Carter, with McCoy Tyner, with Don Pullen, and with just about every significant musician who made a mark on jazz from the 1940s on up, and even going to a date with Doc Cheatham and Benny Carter and Hank Jones. All those experiences are encoded in Lewis’ playing and performance and presentation in one manner or another, and you should not miss him when he’s leading a band.
[MUSIC: w/ McCoy Tyner from Illuminations, The Chase]